An Adventure Through The Slots

Courtney Johnson checks off a bucket list item by hiking a slot canyon.

By Courtney Johnson
Explore Ambassador

Utah has one of the largest concentrations of slot canyons found in the U.S. These slots, narrow chambers of typically sedimentary or sandstone rock, have been carved by water over millions of years. Even today, the slots continue to change from flash floods to rockslides and erosion. 

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

Hiking a slot canyon has always been on my bucket list. When I traveled all along Utah writing my book The Best Utah Children’s Hikes, I visited several areas where slot canyons could be found. I was always intrigued, but for safety reasons slot hikes were not included in my book. 

The part of Utah I found the most captivating was the area of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It is close to 1.9 million acres and spans geologically from the Kaiparowits Plateau to the Escalante River Canyon. This rugged terrain was the last to be mapped in the state. It also happens to be home to a collection of slots that do not require canyoneering to complete safely. 

With it being our first slot canyon experience, and after reading about experiences from others, we decided to book a guide for our trip. We met Shawn from Escape Goats right at our hotel entrance at 7 a.m. He was actually early, which I was impressed by, and we jumped in his almost brand-new 4Runner for the 25-mile drive down the washboard Hole-in-the-Rock Road.   

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

As we headed down the road, which had been greatly improved since the last time we had gone down it, we made small talk. We learned Shawn spent over 20 years in the area guiding and raising his family there. We talked about what the experience would be like in the slots.

The parking lot at the Lower Dry Fork Trailhead was rather empty when we arrived before 8 a.m. There was just one other car and a truck that Shawn suspected broke down since it was there when he guided another family through the slots the day before. We signed the registry and used the newly installed sign that you can use to see if your body will fit through the slots. 

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

The hike to the slots is a mix of hard pack, sand and slick rock. It is relatively flat in the beginning before you head down the slick rock and into the wash. As we made our way from the parking lot, Shawn would stop along the way to point out the tracks of various canyon creatures. We saw the tracks of many high desert dwellers, including pack rats, kangaroo rats, scorpions and beetles. He pointed out pack rat nests, holes in the sand that were home to lizards and the flakes of rock he calls waste flakes that are left over from the creation of arrowheads or other tools used by the Ancestral Puebloans. 

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

There are several ways to do the hike. You can just do Peek-a-boo and Spooky and hike back out, or you can add Dry Fork Wash to the hike as well. After years of experience, Shawn discovered that hiking Spooky first, then Peek-a-boo, and finishing with Dry Fork is the best route. It helps with beating the crowds by doing the tightest slot first. It is also the safest route considering the scrambling and climbing throughout. The round-trip total is just over 6 miles if you do all three slots. 

A dinosaur bone fossilized in a rock was a fun experience. (Photo: Courtney Johnson)

Cairns lined the path all the way up and down the slick rock, but once we descended down into the wash, we followed the tracks of others led by Shawn’s expertise of the area. At one point, he climbed up the rock wall to uncover hidden treasure: a dinosaur bone fossilized in rock. Shawn could not identify the dinosaur, but that isn’t surprising. Paleontologists have found more than 25 unique species of dinosaurs in the area. 

We reached the opening for Spooky Slot, and I took a few deep breaths. I’ve had small bouts of claustrophobia before, but nothing too bad. But still, there were spots that were only 10 inches wide in the slot. Shawn led the way for the first bit of the slot, knowing the obstacles ahead. 

Since we were doing the slot in reverse, the tightest spots came first. Emma had no problem through the tight spaces, but a few times Shawn stopped and gave us some pointers on how to tackle some of the tightest spaces. With the walls covered in Moqui marbles, we quickly learned why Shawn recommended long-sleeved shirts and pants. In fact, we often would see dried smears of blood in various places along the walls. My poor North Face jacket took a beating, but thankfully it was the only thing scathed by the amazing experience. 

Having guided these slots the day before (and for almost 20 years), Shawn noted how much the slots have changed. There was a section of fallen rock that wasn’t in the canyon the day before. One of the hardest obstacles to climb up were some rocks that have shifted and moved in the past year that now require a rope to ascend (and descend, depending on direction) and a boost up if you are vertically challenged like me.

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

Most of the time squeezing through we just enjoyed the silence — the incredible close-up look at the power of Mother Nature. We embraced and got a thrill out of the challenge of trying to maneuver through some of the tightest spots, having to think about how to tackle each of them. 

After we tackled the second to the last of the hardest challenges within this slot, we took a water and snack break. Shawn pointed to a ledge where a 60-plus-year-old man had to be rescued. Apparently, he panicked within the slot and the adrenaline helped him climb the wall, where it was a full 24 hours before he was rescued. Oh, the stories these walls could tell! 

It wasn’t until we began the climb up a sand hill, which Shawn referred to as the StairMaster, that we spotted the first group of hikers: two boys and their mother heading down the hill and into Spooky. Once we were at the top of the hill, the real navigating began as we started the trek from Spooky Slot to Peek-a-boo Slot. 

I was thankful to have Shawn with us as there was a lack of directional signs and cairns in between. From reading people’s trip reports, I knew this was an area where a few hikers have gotten lost. Fully exposed on a sunny hot day is not the situation in which you want to get lost! It’s less than a half-mile or so between the two slots, but with social trails and topography that all look the same, I can see where it could be easy to get lost.

We encountered another couple and a pup just as we were about to enter Peek-a-boo. We exchanged pleasantries, and then we were on our way into the slot. Peek-a-boo Slot is quite different from Spooky. It twists and turns and contains what is referred to as a corkscrew. There is more scrambling and less squeezing. The sandstone arches are just magnificent. With the absence of Moqui marbles, the walls are smooth, and the light that seeped in enhanced the reddish orange hue of the sandstone. 

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

Peek-a-boo is definitely the more photogenic of the two slots. The curve of the walls and the vibrant color make for great photo opportunities. You can move around more easily, and overall, it is just much easier to navigate. We took more time to stop and take in the scenery of this slot. My daughter enjoyed scrambling along the walls and ledges. The hardest obstacle happens to be at the slot entrance (exit for us). It was much easier to climb down the 12-foot wall stemming, using our backs against the rock and turning around for the last bit of the climb down. 

Maybe a quarter-mile through more wash, we entered our last slot for the day, known as Dry Fork. It is often referred to as the Dry Fork Narrows because of its high canyon walls. The name “Dry” is a bit ironic as we learned that water has risen higher than the estimated 55- to 70-foot walls during flash floods. During monsoon rain, stagnant water can often be found in this slot, along with the others. Following a long period of no snow, or any precipitation, we had no water to contend with. 

The wash is fairly wide open in many places. Some rock fall and scrambling are mixed in within a visit, but this slot’s main features are the vast, tall sandstone walls. We could see little ledges along the walls, often with bird poop underneath. These are home to owls. A treat typically in late April and early May is to be able to see some baby owl heads popping up. Some more walls contained Moqui marbles. Shawn and I discussed how they are similar to the Martian blueberries found on Mars. Currently, there is discussion in the space world that these iron and sandstone balls could play a big role in the life of organisms.

We passed another family just beginning their slot adventure as we neared the end of the 1-mile slot. Soon, we left the confines of the sandstone walls and were in the wash again. We took another snack and water break, sitting on some larger rocks. 

We followed Shawn up and across the landscape back to the trailhead. Several groups now were making their way to the slots. A few stopped us for tips, directions and other information. Up and out of the wash, Shawn stopped one last time to show us both a knife and arrowhead he had found in the sand over the years of doing this hike. Watching as more and more people were descending the canyon, he hid those objects again from plain sight. 

Back at the trailhead, the parking lot was about half-full and not as busy as on a typical Saturday. We said how grateful we were for being able to enjoy the slots in such peace. As we made our way back to the hotel, we stopped 11 miles from the end of Hole-in-the-Rock Road at an area known as the Devil’s Garden. This spot features a large collection of hoodoos, a few arches and rocks galore to climb upon. In fact, I mentioned this place in my book as a great place for a hike and scramble with kids. 

After about 25 minutes of exploring, we were back in the 4Runner on the way back to the hotel. Shawn talked about the other guiding he does, and we chatted about the other adventures we had planned for the upcoming spring and summer. 

Back at the hotel, and covered in red sand, we thanked Shawn for a great day. In service range now, I jumped on my phone to look for slots near Moab for a trip I was taking with Emma and some friends in late April. To say we enjoyed our experience was an understatement. So, if you make a trip to Escalante, be sure to put a visit to the slots on your agenda. You won’t be disappointed!

To learn how to plan your slot canyon hike check out this Simple 7.

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